Asean leaders seen going soft on South China Sea feud, according to draft communique

A worker watering the grounds around an Asean logo outside the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), the venue for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Manila.
A worker watering the grounds around an Asean logo outside the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), the venue for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Manila. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - South-east Asian leaders will express "serious concerns" over disputes in the South China Sea, but they will also avoid confronting China with an arbitration decision striking down its claims over the strategic waterway, according to a draft communique to be issued at the end of their annual summit in Manila this week.

"We shared the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region," read the draft of the "chairman's statement" that will be issued at the end of the meeting.

A draft of the communique was provided by a source to several reporters.

The 30th Asean Summit meetings starting on Wednesday (April 26) will see the grouping's foreign ministers meet on Friday and culminate in the leaders' summit on Saturday. Asean leaders, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will attend Saturday's summit.

The draft statement, however, does not mention in 20 pages the ruling handed down last year on a case initiated by former president Benigno Aquino invalidating China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is hosting the summit as Asean chair, has been warming once-frosty ties with China.

He has set aside the South China Sea ruling, as he seeks investments and loans from Beijing to help with his anti-crime drive and ambitious infrastructure spending programme.

The draft statement repeats language of concern already used in past Asean communiques.

"We reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, avoiding actions that may further complicate the the situation, and pursuing peaceful resolution of disputes," it read.